Chocolate Hearts Make for Healthy Hearts

Photo: Chocolate and a healthier heart

The mere thought of Valentine's Day may set your heart aflutter but it's the treats you eat on this most romantic of holidays that some say may keep that ol' ticker running smoothly.

People who ate one serving of chocolate per week were 22 percent less likely to have a stroke than those who ate no chocolate, according to a research analysis which will be presented at the 2010 AAN Annual Meeting in Toronto in April.

The research merely shows an association, of course, so it is far from conclusive. And cardiologists regard the findings with skepticism.

Still, given that millions of Americans will celebrate this Valentine's Day with a bit of the sweet stuff, the new piece of research may lead many people to conclude that eating chocolate, especially antioxidant-filled dark chocolate, is "a decadent treat with added value," Godiva Chocolatier spokesman Eric Lapidus said.

VIDEO: Studies show how eating chocolate in moderation can reduce your risk of stroke.
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Lapidus also noted that in recent years, perhaps in light of its health benefits, American's chocolate preference has moved away from milk chocolate and gone over to the dark side.

While it is too early in the research to tell how strong the connection between stroke prevention and cocoa may be, a number of studies have shown regular consumption of chocolate to be a heart-helper.

"This [study] does not establish cause and effect," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. "It might simply be that, for example, people who enjoy life have a lower risk of stroke and are more prone to eat chocolate."

But the link is "certainly plausible" Katz said, considering "numerous studies of dark chocolate … have demonstrated favorable effects on the very factors directly linked to stroke risk, [such as] blood pressure, [blood-vessel] function and blood flow, and lipid levels, to name a few."

Some experts, however, were more skeptical of the study's findings.

Dr. Patrick Lyden, chairman of the department of neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said that given that the dose of chocolate was small (one serving per week) it's most likely that the finding was a "statistical fluke."

Still, although it may be far from definitive, the report adds to the overall weight of evidence suggesting that habitual snacking on chocolate -- dark chocolate, that is -- is good for your heart, Katz said. And in this light, the connection between chocolate consumption and risk of stroke is certainly plausible, he added.

Chocolate, the Indulgence With Heart

Chocolate has a rich history of enticing, delighting and reviving its patrons.

The Aztecs prepared it as a hot, frothy, non-sweet, beverage that they thought had stimulating and restorative properties.

Even the scientific name for the bean, obroma cacao, is Greek for "food of the gods."

How the divine treat become so indelibly tied to the concept of romantic love and the holiday that celebrates it is open to discussion.

It may its historical use as an aphrodisiac or simply that many women love the gift of a good box of chocolates. However it all started, gifting and indulging in chocolate has become an inseparable part of the holiday itself.

Feb. 14 and the days leading up to it are the busiest time of the year for Godiva stores, spokesman Lapidus said.

Chocolate-covered strawberries, their Valentine bestseller, are sold at a whopping rate of 15,000 pieces an hour nationwide during period.

"Since ancient times, gustatory experiences with quality foods and rare delicacies have always been linked to pleasure," said Anca Niculescu, boutique manager of La Maison du Chocolat at Rockefeller Center, New York.

La Maison strives to share its Valentine's chocolates in a way that speaks to an "enduring image of romance and love," she said.

A Gift From the Heart Is a Gift for the Heart

As recent research has uncovered, Valentine's Day's traditional "gift from the heart" is also a gift of health for your heart.

Dark chocolate, with its high cocoa content, is one of the richest sources of antioxidants called flavonoids, which are thought to encourage cardiovascular health.

"There are a few studies that indicate that even small amounts of dark chocolate can improve blood flow and reduce blood pressure," Keith-Thomas Ayoob, director of the nutrition clinic at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, said.

One such study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2006, found that after four months of eating 30 calories of dark chocolate a day, adults who were pre-hypertensive saw decreases in blood pressure.

"The changes in blood-pressure readings are small," Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, said of the study, "but small changes can add up to a big difference."

Similarly, the 2006 Zutphen Elderly Study found that cocoa consumption in men older than 65 was associated with lower blood pressure. After following nearly 500 men for 15 years, researchers found that chocolate lovers had lower blood pressure regardless of their diet and family heart-disease history and were half as likely to die from heart disease.

Although it's not entirely clear how cocoa protects the heart, research suggests that it "keeps your bad cholesterol from misbehaving and causing plaque build-up [in the arteries]," Ayoob said.

More recently, a 2009 study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine addressed heart health in general: Researchers found that heart attack survivors can reduce their risk of a second heart attack by eating chocolate several times per week.

So whether you're sharing the bounty of that heart-shaped box with your sweetheart, or easing the blow of a broken heart with a little choco-therapy, you may be on your way to a healthier, happier heart, at least in the biological sense.

A Lesson in Chocolate Living

With Valentine's Day fast approaching, store shelves are bursting with chocolate confections, but buyer beware, not all chocolates are created equal.

"If you are going to eat chocolate, go dark," neurologist Lyden said.

Milk chocolate tends to be higher in saturated fats and sugar and doesn't have nearly the same level of flavonoids as high-antioxidant dark chocolate, which should be at least 60 percent cocoa by weight.

As far as white chocolate, it's a misnomer: it contains no cocoa and hence none of the antioxidant health benefits of milk or dark chocolate.

And while Valentine's Day may have you polishing off an entire box of chocolate-y goodness, in general, sticking to no more than an ounce of dark chocolate a day is the general rule, unless you want the fat and calorie content of this treat to outweigh its benefits, Ayoob says.

While the verdict may be out on exactly why and how chocolate is good for us, "There is sufficient basis to condone, and even encourage, routine, moderate intake of dark chocolate," Katz said.

"Dark chocolate does appear to be a prime example of a food we love... that loves us back."

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